Longstanding structural issues plague Senate’s effectiveness

April 5, 2013, 12:10 a.m.

A year after the current ASSU Undergraduate Senators promised significant reforms — including improving the academic advising program, increasing faculty diversity, instituting a need-blind financial aid program for international students and creating weekly video updates about Senate business — none have been successfully implemented.

According to current and former senators, that lack of progress is merely symptomatic of broader issues — including almost-complete annual turnover, a lack of upperclassmen representation and structural limitations — that have annually hamstrung the Senate’s initiatives and blocked senators’ efforts to significantly improve student life.

Lack of upperclassmen voices

The current Senate is composed of 11 sophomores and two juniors, a distribution similar to that of previous years. The 2011-2012 Senate had 11 sophomores, two juniors and two seniors, while the 2010-2011 Senate had 12 sophomores and three juniors.

Former senator Shawn Dye ’14 asserted that the Senate’s youthful composition is hardly ideal. Though Dye served as a Senate Associate during his freshman year, he said that this experience failed to provide him with enough insight into the role of the Senate on campus.

“Most of the [freshman candidates] don’t really know anything about what the Senate does and what the ASSU does in general,” Dye said. “They’re thrown into this field where they have no clue what they’re doing besides the two-week crash course of training after they get elected.”

According to Dye, underclassmen senators sometimes realize that they would rather pursue other student groups or activities while still in office, a problem that Dye believes would be less prevalent among upperclassmen who have already had time to explore other options.

“[Sophomore senators] are thrown into this pit, and sometimes they realize the ASSU is not the avenue for the change they want to see on campus,” Dye said. “Upperclassmen will bring a better sense of institutional knowledge and a more colorful repertoire of their Stanford experience than freshmen.”

Though ASSU Assistant Financial Manager Stephen Trusheim ’13 M.S. ’14 also said that having more juniors and seniors on the Senate would be “amazing,” he acknowledged that many upperclassmen are busy with other activities or decide to study abroad instead.

“The fact that you need to be very representative — day in and day out — is a very challenging thing to do as a junior,” he said. “It takes a very dedicated person to want to stay in the ASSU with this weekly, and pretty big, time commitment on top of junior year.”

Almost complete annual turnover
High turnover rates have also historically been a problem for the Senate. In the last four years, only two senators have served for more than one term. No senators ran for reelection this year or last year, and only one incumbent ran for reelection in both 2011 and 2010.

Former senator Samar Alqatari ’14, who served on Senate last year, said that Senate was an experience that she “wanted to try for one year,” and that she never considered serving a second term.

“I’d rather help other prospective senators who were not burnt out and were very passionate about making a difference, and telling them how to make the most impact more so than doing it myself,” Alqatari said.

Current senator Viraj Bindra ’15 said the transition between the outgoing and incoming Senate last year was “staggered and sporadic,” which prevented the new Senate from making significant progress before summer break.

“There was no continuity from last year’s Senate, so we couldn’t use the five extra weeks at the end of last year to continue or finish anything they had started,” Bindra said. “When we came back we still felt slightly unprepared. The ball just took a really long time to get rolling.”

According to Trusheim, many senators decide not to run for reelection because they are discouraged by their experiences on the Senate, and therefore seek other outlets to make change on campus.

“It sounds romantic before you start to be a senator, and then you sit in a Senate meeting for weeks and weeks and months and months and you don’t often get the payout that you do by leading a student group,” Trusheim said. “You don’t get to see the impact of your things and everyone is always mad at you. It is a very challenging job to want to do more than once.”

Funding responsibilities and structural limitations

While many senators take office intending to make a difference through student life initiatives, former senators and ASSU officials agree that the primary purpose of the Senate is funding, necessitating more candidates interested in reviewing funding applications.

“We may as well rename this to just be the fricking funding board, which isn’t exactly the worst idea I’ve ever had,” Trusheim said. “There’s a minor advocacy mission to this, but most of the advocacy work is done in the University committees.”

Trusheim described the ideal senator as someone who “wants to sit there and niggle about $50 on a balloon or something like that,” which may not match the desires of Senate candidates with more idealistic plans.

“The very first action that one Senate took was denying someone their balloon request,” Trusheim said. “They were like, ‘We’re going to take a hard line on requests this year.’ That’s the kind of people it takes to be in the Senate.”

Dye said that many incoming senators are unaware of the Senate’s limitations in terms of student life projects and advocacy and are disappointed when faced with the reality of serving on Senate.

“People use the ASSU as a platform for endless possibility when this is actually not true,” Dye said. “There are actually things that are very specific to what the ASSU is, and people unfortunately walk into their positions having to comply with something that they don’t necessarily want to do.”

According to Dye, while the Senate is an effective source of funding for student groups, it may not be the right organization for students interested in making significant change on campus.

“There are plenty of other groups that have just as much influence and power as the ASSU on campus in terms of outreach to students and effectiveness that students can join and voice their opinions and really get work done,” Dye said. “I think there is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape in the ASSU that prevents that from happening.”

Hope for future Senates

In order to promote greater continuity, current senators plan to create a comprehensive set of transition documents to guide the new Senate.

“I know that we will be making sure the transition period is a lot stronger this time around,” Bindra said. “At least a few of us will be coming to every single meeting this quarter, so we’ll make sure that we’re there to answer questions and make sure they are doing stuff within their first couple of weeks in office.”

Current senator Christos Haveles ’15 echoed Bindra’s sentiment and added that several members of the appropriations committee will attend the new Senate’s first appropriations meetings to answer questions about funding policies, an area of weakness for the Senate.

Despite the current Senate’s promise to educate new senators about their roles and responsibilities, Trusheim believes the prevalence of underclassmen senators will continue to pose a challenge to the Senate’s success.

“Coming in as a freshmen into an institution that is supposed to be the voice of the student body is a very challenging thing to do,” Trusheim said. “You don’t know enough to want to do things, and the people who do [know enough] don’t want to be senators because it’s a losing job.”

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